Polls give Obama the early edge over Romney, Gingrich

Tribune Washington Bureau

A new round of polling shows President Obama ahead of the two leading Republican candidates in the 2012 election. But 11 months before the votes are actually cast, how much stock should be put into these findings?

Polling experts say check back in about two to three months.

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows the president leading Romney 47-45%, and Gingrich 51-40%. USA Today and Gallup give Obama a 47-46% advantage over Romney, and 50-44% over Gingrich. And a Reuters/Ipsos poll puts Obama ahead 48-40% over Romney, and 51-38% over the former House speaker.

As members of Obama’s team continue to map out their strategy, they’re no doubt heartened by the findings. But early horse race numbers of this sort tend not to be reliable predictors of the final outcome. For instance, Gallup found Jimmy Carter leading Ronald Reagan by 24 points in December 1979.


At a briefing for reporters in Washington on Wednesday, Gallup editors and a pair of political scientists offered evidence that there’s a dramatic increase in the predictive quality of head-to-head polling at about seven months before the election, typically just as the parties settle on their respective nominees.

Instead it is the incumbent president’s job approval rating that provides a better gauge of his political strength in the earlier stages.

According to Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones, presidents with approval ratings at 50% or higher tend to be sure bets for reelection. Those in the lower 40% range have typically lost.

Obama, then, is in a gray area. He’s hovered in the low-to-mid 40% range in Gallup’s daily tracking poll. He is at 46% in the Reuters poll, and 47% according to NBC News/Wall Street Journal.

“It’s not clear how far below 50% you can be and still get reelected,” Jones said.

Obama then would hope to see his numbers climb sufficiently by next spring. Historically, a president’s job approval rating has changed only slightly in his reelection year, and any movement that does occur tends to be negative, Jones added.